Richard Linklater, the most Hawksian of all modern day directors, has done something that many would not believe possible. He has made Jack Black not only palatable, but downright entertaining. Sure, the rather overwrought cherubic actor can be fun at times, but let's face it, his career has been much more Nacho Libre and much less Margot at the Wedding. Here Black hands in a performance that is not only better than anything the actor has previously attempted but perhaps light years above them all. Instead of just acting the clown, which incidentally Black is adept at doing even if he does it in some pretty rotten movies, the actor has decided to do something different this time around. The actor has decided to act. Combine this with Linklater's typically quirky ability to mock and show love for his mockees at the same damn time, and you have yourself a funny and tender romp of good old fashioned Texas chutzpah - Linklater style.
Based on the all-too-true story of Bernie Tiede, a 39 year old East Texas assistant funeral director who in 1996 shot and killed his 81 year old companion, Linklater gives the story both a tragic and a comic feel. Intermingling fictionalized portrayals with real life interviews with those who knew the real Bernie, Linklater's film rattles along with the sense of reality crashing headlong into fantasy. The film, and everything that transpires within it, seems to be so ridiculous, so far-fetched, that it could not be true. But alas, with the exception of necessary dramatic flourishes, it is very very true. Perhaps Bernie never rises to the heights of past Linklater works such as Dazed and Confused or the Before Sunrise/Sunset twins, but with the director's unique spin on things - docudrama turned mocumentary turned back into docudrama - it is the best film the man has done in several years. And I think, even being the lifelong auteurist that I am, much of this has to do with the surprising performance of Jack Black.
Also starring Shirley MacLaine as the aforementioned inevitably fatal widow and old Linklater stalwart Matthew McConaughey (and when did he start making good movies once again?) as the local D.A., wonderfully named Danny Buck, Bernie plays out as a gleefully southern Gothic tale that may have been penned by the likes of Carson McCullers. Okay, perhaps a less acerbic, more poppy version of McCullers, but you get the gist. Linklater brings his movie together, the characterizations and the real lifers both, with the charm of a southern gentleman - or at least the Texas gentleman that he most certainly is. But once again, no matter how much charming junk Linklater decides to put in the trunk (or the freezer as the case may be here) this is Jack Black's show. It his his movie to make or break, and this time around, nothing gets broken.